(Sir) Noël (Pierce) Coward

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John Raymond

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 741

Any discussion of the art of Noël Coward must necessarily turn on the distinction between 'Drama' and 'Theatre'—and the value, if any, of pure 'Theatre' considered as an end in itself. Pure 'Drama'—we are not flattering ourselves here?—we can all hope to recognise. Today pure 'Theatre'—thanks to the Arts Council, 'The Method', M. Ionesco, the spirit of the age, the 'comedies' of Mr Eliot and the fact that 'culture', like Honest Doubt in the nineteenth century and rational religion earlier, has become the obsession of the Higher Boredom—is far to seek. Soon it will be as dead as Queen Anne. The best work of our leading 'majority' dramatists—Priestley, Ustinov, Rattigan, etc.—is 'theatre' strongly tinged with drama. They write deliberately intending that their wit, pathos, characters and situations shall follow us out of Shaftesbury Avenue and into the Tube….

Not so Mr. Coward. Alone among our practising first division, he is unashamedly the theatrical purist…. Politics, religion, social problems, Time, philosophy, the 'accepted hells beneath', the strife of gods and men—he is hygienically free from them all. Intellectually, he is as clean as a whistle. Again and again, in the prefaces to his plays—and in a notable and amusing scene in Present Laughter …—he emphasises his absorption in and respect for the commercial theatre, much as a certain kind of failed creative writer who has turned into a top-line journalist salutes the camaraderie and stylistic discipline of Fleet Street.

Time and place, the warm Clapham-Ebury Street background, the condition of the English theatre, the long divorce between the stage and literature (a breach that Shaw healed by annulling the original marriage and re-contracting the parties on a sounder and mutually satisfactory basis)—all this, together with his own fatal flair and facility and hunger for success at any price, made it inevitable that Coward should shun the semi-intellectual (or even the historical or biographical) themes that have fascinated his contemporaries….

Weaving in and out of [Play Parade: Collected Plays of Noël Coward] … one re-admires Coward's wonderful deftness and construction. Not content with pondering his tricks, I have also been trying to analyse his content. To do this is to see where, even as a pure man of the theatre, he fails. Maugham, his great model, never makes this mistake. From Lady Frederick onwards, his plays, whether comedies or melodramas, are humming with content…. But except very rarely …, Coward's plays give us little or no stage illusion of the thickness of life—so much more vital in his kind of comedy or the Ben Travers type of farce than in Shavian morality.

What on earth, you wonder, as your eye flickers up and down the page—like Maugham's, Coward's plays make wonderfully easy reading—what on earth is all this about? Flirtation, boredom, vestigial sex (cocktail sex, sex-in-the-head, sex trian-gulated or quadrupled), nagging, rowing (no one can build up a stage row as brilliantly as Coward), puppy-love, calf-love, youth's crush on middle age, middle age's disillusion with youth—these themes form the staple waste land of his comedies. When he is at his most serious he is most inconsequent. What, for example, are we to make of The Vortex? What is Florence's motivation—or Nicky's? The play abounds in 'theatrical' lines, lines which are really meaningless but which sound immensely effective within the strict unliterary, unthinking conventions of the classic West End theatre….

Coward is the grand master of verbal triviality. He has never been one to turn the cliché inside out; his art consists rather in piling cliché on cliché until the total banal effect makes its comic impact. 'The Use of Topography in the Metasomatic Wit of Noël Coward' would make a first-class American university English thesis e.g., 'Very flat—Norfolk'; 'You can see as far as Marlow on a clear day, so they tell me'; 'She went to Brighton with the worst intentions but never got further than Haywards Heath', etc. I sometimes think he will live longest in literature as a grubbing-ground for the scholiasts of AD 2558 and be published in the form of gobbets, learnedly annotated like a Loeb edition. Lines such as 'I think Rajahs bumble up a house-party so terribly' will be mauled over as fiercely as a fragment of Menander. (p. 563)

John Raymond, "Play, Orchestra, Play!" in New Statesman (© 1958 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LVI, No. 1441, October 25, 1958, pp. 563-64.∗

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